The origin story of modern collaboration
“I had this immensely intuitive feeling that humans are going to be able to derive a great deal of capability from [technology].”
Words by Marcia Adair
Illustrations by Hannah Minn and Nien-Ken Alec Lu
On December 9, 1968, Douglas Engelbart gave the mother of all webinars.
A computer scientist at the Stanford Research Institute, Engelbart unveils his method for collaborative working he called the Conceptual Framework for Augmenting Human Intellect.
“I became committed in 1951 to improving mankind’s ability for dealing with its pressing problems,” Englebart wrote in a 1995 magazine essay explaining his motivation to develop the framework. “Especially those overtaxing our collective capability to cope with complexity and urgency.” Quite a big ask for a machine with just 16 kilobytes of memory.
As is usual for people with big ideas, Engelbart was considered a bit of a nut by colleagues during his lifetime. (“Maybe I am,” he once confessed.) Most of them were numbers people, interested mainly in what they could get computers to do, like how one might train a dog to return a bird. Engelbart viewed computers “as a supportive tool” to achieve his main goal of “facilitating discursive thinking and collaboration.”
On the day of the presentation, everyone on his team at the Stanford Research Institute was nervous: The chances of it all going sideways, live, in front of a thousand of his colleagues were high.
For the first time, the world outside a lab in then-sleepy Menlo Park, California, would see screen-sharing, hypertext, multiple windows, real-time editing, video conferencing, and version control in action, all directed by a strange-looking apparatus called a “mouse.”
Everything went mostly according to plan as he unveiled fundamental elements of the internet.
“You can’t imagine the relief when it worked,” Englebart later said. “We thought, ‘boy, the world’s going to be talking now. Everybody will start augmenting.’”
While the audience that day was astonished, the world wasn’t quite ready.
Engelbart later recalled that he “had this immensely intuitive feeling that humans are going to be able to derive a great deal of capability” from what he was about to unveil.
While the audience that day was astonished, the world wasn’t quite ready.
“It didn’t happen,” Engelbart said at a conference nearly 20 years later.
Asked why, he replied, “It’s puzzled me. And you know, I used to take it personally. I still get flashes of that. All I can really say is that it just didn’t fit the cultural perceptions [at the time].”
“But we went ahead anyway,” he said of his new way of collaborating.
Fifty-five years after Engelbart debuted his framework, collaborative working is America’s default work system.
In 2016, a survey of 249 mainly C-suite executives by The Economist magazine’s Economist Intelligence Unit found that dominant market-share leaders are significantly more successful at living out collaboration at all levels of the organization than their competitors.
Participants were around 30% more likely to agree that “almost everyone believes” that collaboration improves decision quality, organizational efficiency, strategy buy-in, and improves operations and output. The big drawback of collaboration, in the view of non-market leaders, was that collaboration complicates things.
Seven years and one pandemic later, collaborative working has only embedded itself further into the fundament of 21st-century life. In 2022, an MIT Sloan survey found that more than 75% of 1,100 surveyed knowledge workers reported actively collaborating with colleagues for more than 40% of their time or 3.2 hours per day in a 40-hour work week. That’s a lot of working together.
Douglas Engelbart, who died in 2008, forty years after his defining demo, would feel vindicated watching us use collaborative work management tools, get on a Zoom call, or co-edit a Google Doc on an internet browser with 87 open tabs.
We’re a little smarter when we work together using technology.
One thing that would likely delight the late Engelbart is seeing how freely most of us collaborate–often aided by the sort of software-based “augmented intellect” he had so eagerly envisioned decades ago. To put it another way, we’re a little smarter when we work together using technology.
The most striking discrepancy in The Economist survey was around productivity: For 33% of market-share leaders, it was obvious that collaboration increases employee productivity. Just 17% of participants working at other companies could say the same.
This is good news for collaboration but also presents a rather awkward paradox: Namely, if the main point of working collaboratively is gaining efficiency, eventually, the system will destroy itself. The basic precept of this mode of work is that it is, by nature, a wooly beast, thriving in environments that value the long and winding road, dead ends, and all.
Hierarchy, the least collaborative organizational structure, is still common in large companies, legacy firms, and family businesses, especially outside the U.S. When The Economist surveyed people working at firms with at least $10 billion in annual revenue, a different collaboration story emerged.
Participants agreed that collaboration would only become more important in the coming years but also said prioritizing it was more expensive, riskier, and added more complexity to projects. At the time of the survey, 40% of respondents felt that developing a collaboration-forward work culture was not worthwhile.
Some might argue that the reluctance to trade a reduction in absolute efficiency for better work, better employees, and perhaps even better people is a reflection of our culture’s views on the purpose of work and the value of workers.
Part of this comes down to human nature. But most of it is thanks to Frederick Winslow Taylor.
No one has done more to streamline work than the mechanical engineer and 1881 U.S. National doubles tennis champion. An irony-resistant paradox, who spent his life in relentless pursuit of finding the “one best method” for everything, Taylor was the first person to investigate work with the same precision other “gentleman scientists” were bringing to cataloging the natural world.
Born in 1856 to a wealthy Philadelphia Quaker family, Taylor was set to follow his father into the law. Instead, he declined his place at Harvard University and apprenticed at a hydraulic works. It was there that he first noticed his colleagues’ tendency to “loaf” or stand around during slow periods. He found this behavior utterly baffling. If they had time to lean, they had time to stamp out more parts.
After four years of training, he had a chance to go to university. He declined, instead taking a job as a laborer in the machine shop at Midvale Steel Works.
Management loved him, and he moved quickly up the ranks, eventually becoming Chief Engineer. Freed from the burden of constant production, he was able to devote more and more time to his favorite hobby: making improvements. Taylor would walk around the steelworks with his stopwatch, timing processes and then rearranging tools, workstations, and colleagues to gain a second or two. He was the original moneyballer.
Throughout the 1880s, he carried out more than 30,000 efficiency experiments, along the way filing several patents and perfecting time and motion studies. No variable was too small to measure, tweak and optimize; no task too inconsequential to break into its constituent parts.
As you might imagine, this obsession did not endear him to his colleagues. Taylor’s solution for this? A deep and abiding contempt for workers who didn’t do their job in the manner he considered maximally efficient. Which, it seems, was just about everyone. “Hardly a competent workman can be found…who does not devote a considerable amount of time to studying just how slowly he can work and still convince his employer he’s going at a good pace,” he would later scoff in an address to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.
“A factory organized according to Taylor’s scientific method,” writes James Suzman in his excellent book Work, “was a workspace where patience, obedience, and the ability to lose oneself in the metallic beat of the mechanical hammers in a forge were far better qualifications than imagination, ambition, and creativity.”
Later in his career, Taylor began to work as a consultant, essentially inventing the field of management science. It didn’t go very well. Astonishingly, captains of industry were not eager to hand over control of their golden eggs to someone who insisted on total freedom to permanently change whatever he wished.
Thanks in part to a collaboration with Henry Ford in 1903, Scientific Management, as it would come to be known, found its moment in post-war America. The system didn’t catch on as well in Canada, the UK, or Europe. Company owners there were just as keen on profit as their American cousins but opted for quality rather than quantity as the means for achieving it.
Eventually, British and European consumers let go of their made-to-last handcrafted goods in favor of cheaper versions that were good enough. But not before norms like two weeks of vacation a year, fewer working hours, and a clear divide between the work and private spheres were established. Today, many large, well-known enterprises organize themselves according to Taylorist principles. In the white-collar world, his management style is popular in hospitals, the civil service, universities, and consultancies.
It turns out that humans make poor robots. Not only do we not like to do repetitive, unfulfilling work, we just aren’t very good at it.
Taylorism’s core idea was that the worker is an automaton, a machine whose primary function is to carry out the maximum number of processes in the most efficient manner possible. His main disappointment was that humans were not machine enough.
Perhaps the best indicator of the impact Taylorism has had on American work culture is that in the midst of our collaboration revolution 120 years later, we are still trying to unpick the idea that productivity is the principal measure of a person’s worth.
It turns out that humans make poor robots. Not only do we not like to do repetitive, unfulfilling work, we just aren’t very good at it. Our bladders and stomachs demand too much attention, and we get destructive when we’re bored.
Illustration by Nien-Ken Alec Lu
To solve this problem, we’ve enlisted new workers with few animating thoughts, zero ambition, and a preternatural ability to handle unending hours of repetitive work: actual robots. Indeed, the advent of artificial intelligence and robotics is perhaps our greatest act of “soldiering”—a term Taylor used to describe the creative ways soldiers would invent to avoid performing unpleasant tasks.
Engelbart might view our modern robot helpers as evidence that we are further augmenting human intellect. “I had this immensely intuitive feeling that humans are going to be able to derive a great deal of capability [from technology],” he wrote in 1962. “We could invent, and develop, and facilitate our thinking since we would no longer be limited to working with laborious means.” His philosophy is one of abundance in that once technology relieves us of the daily grind, there are no limits to what we can achieve. “[We] can be collaborating in new and exciting ways.”
ChatGPT is the latest work-disrupting technology. A few years ago, it was Zoom. Before that, it was the concept of the cloud. Before that, a flat company structure, the internet, email, and punch cards. With each new change, we can choose to resist and protect the status quo or use the new tool to free up time for the higher-order work of collaboration.
In 3,000 B.C., writing was the new disruptive technology. It created a whole class of new, well-paid jobs but required some study to become adept. In his book Work, James Suzman describes an Egyptian man seeing his son off to school.
“Put writing in your heart that you may protect yourself from hard labor of any kind,” the boy’s father instructs him. “The scribe is released from manual tasks.”
The Workback is all about the grand idea and leaders who are solving the problems to achieve it. In the spirit of collaboration, we want to hear from you about collaboration between your teams. How does work look from your office chair? What’s exciting? What’s frightening? We want to hear all about it—the bugbears, the paradoxes, the circles, and the joy. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.